CRITICAL COMMENTS ON BOOK ONE
Three Divisions of Book I
The poem opens in in medias res (that is, in the middle of the story). Keats does not begin his poem from the very beginning. In other words, he does not go back to the origin of the conflict between the old gods (namely the Titans) and the new gods (namely the Olympians). He starts the poem at the point where the Titans have already been defeated by the Olympians and have been dethroned.
In other words, Keats plunges into the story at the point when the defeated Titans, feeling grief-stricken on account of their dethronement, sit or lie in a state of listlessness or stupor or despair. Book I falls into three parts. The first part describes the grief of Saturn and of Thea, and their decision to join their fellow-Titans who have assembled in a cave among the rocks far away from where Saturn has been sitting silent and “quiet as a stone”. The second part deals with the apprehensions and fears of the Titan Hyperion, the god of the sun, who is still the master of his empire and who yet retains his full authority over his realm. The third part of the poem contains Coelus’s exhortations to Hyperion, and the latter’s departure for the earth to meet his fellow-gods, leaving the planet of the sun to be looked after by Coelus.
An Epic Poem: Its Exalted Theme and Exalted Style
Hyperion is an epic poem. An epic has always an exalted theme which is treated in an exalted style. Now the theme of Hyperion is the war between the Titans and the Olympians and the outcome of that war. The characters in this poem are supernatural beings. They are the displaced deities who had been governing the various forces of Nature, and the new deities who have taken their places. However, we do not meet any of the new deities either in Book I or in Book II, and the only new deity, namely Apollo, who is introduced to us, appears in Book III. Books I and II deal wholly with the displaced gods. In any case, the poem does have an exalted theme. The manner in which Thea is described, for instance, shows that we are not dealing with human beings but with superhuman beings. By comparison with the goddess Thea, even the tall Amazon would have appeared to be a mere pigmy. Thea was such a huge and powerful deity that she could have seized Achilles by his hair and twisted his neck; she could have stopped with one finger the revolving wheel to which Ixion had been tied; her face was as large as that of the Memphian Sphinx. Subsequently, Hyperion too is described in the same manner; he too is a god of gigantic proportions. But, although the gods have been described on a grand scale, their passions and feelings are similar to those of human beings. The style of the poem is exalted, too. The poem has been admired widely for the sublimity of its style and the solemnity of its blank verse.
Pathos, The Keynote of Book I
Pathos is the keynote of Book I. Most of the situations in Book I arouse our deepest sympathies for the sufferers who are gods and goddesses, no ordinary human beings, but who feel as wretched and miserable in their defeat as human beings would in theirs. Saturn sits silent with his right hand “nerveless, listless, dead, unsceptred”; and his “realmless eyes” are closed. This is a moving picture of the god who was once the ruler of the whole universe. Then there is the moving picture of Thea who comes to meet Saturn in his misery. She has one hand on that aching spot where beats the human heart; though an immortal, she is experiencing cruel pain. She speaks to Saturn some mourning words, telling him that she has brought no comfort for him. The pathos of the situation deepens when she reminds him that he has lost heaven, that he has lost the earth, and that he no longer has any authority over the ocean. “All the air is emptied of thine hoary majesty”, she says. When Saturn opens his eyes and speaks to Thea, his speech further stirs our sympathy for him. He laments the fact that he has been dethroned completely and that he has even lost his identity and his real self. He asks, in words which are poignant, whether it would be possible for him to regain his empire. He would like to know if he can find another chaos from which he may fashion another universe to govern. The account of the fears and apprehensions of Hyperion is another pathetic element in the poem. Hyperion feels deeply dejected by the ill-omens which he has witnessed; and he would like to know what his fate is going to be. He asks if he too is going to fall like Saturn and if he is going to be deprived of the comforts and peace of his “lucent empire”. He thinks that he might lose “the blaze, the splendour, and the symmetry”, and that he would then see only darkness, “death and darkness”.
The pathos of the situation of the Titans is brought out by Coelus when, addressing Hyperion, he says that his eldest son Saturn had been overthrown and that Saturn had appealed to him for his help but in vain because he (Coelus) was in no position to offer any help to any of his children. Coelus then asks if Hyperion too is threatened with a similar fate. Here are the relevant lines addressed by Coelus to Hyperion:
I saw my first-born tumbled from his throne!
To me his arms were spread, to me his voice
Found way from forth the thunders round his head!
Pale wox I, and in vapours hid my face.
Art thou, too, near such doom? (Lines 323-27)
The pathos of the speech made by Coelus becomes more keen when Coelus asks Hyperion to go down to the earth and do something for Saturn who is feeling miserable:
To the earth!
For there thou wilt find Saturn, and his woes.
The Feeling of Awe, Aroused in Our Minds
Another dominant emotion aroused by Book I is that of awe. A feeling of terror is created in our minds when we read the account of Hyperion entering his palace in a state of indignation:
He enter’d, but he enter’d full of wrath ;
His flaming robes stream’d out beyond his heels,
And gave a roar, as if of earthly fire,
That scar’d away the meek ethereal Hours
And made their dove-wings tremble. (Lines 213-17)
The feeling of terror in our minds is heightened when Hyperion declares that he would drive away Jove from his throne and reinstate Saturn:
No, by Tellus and her briny robes!
Over the fiery frontier of my realms
I will advance a terrible right arm
Shall scare that infant thunderer, rebel Jove,
And bid old Saturn take his throne again. (Lines 240-50)
Graphic Descriptive Passages, and Vivid Pictures
Book I illustrates also Keats’s descriptive powers. There is plenty of graphic description here. The most striking passage in this respect is the one in which the palace of Hyperion has been described. Hyperion’s bright palace is “bastioned with pyramids of glowing gold, and touched with shade of bronzed obelisks” This palace has many courts, arches, domes, and fiery galleries. The curtains in this palace are made of clouds supplied by Aurora, the goddess of the dawn. Keats gives us, indeed, an elaborate and impressive description of this palace. Equally graphic is the description of Hyperion rushing out of his palace to the eastern gates where “he breathed fierce breath against the sleepy portals, cleared them of heavy vapours, and burst them wide suddenly on the ocean’s chilly streams’“. This description continues with a reference to the planet of the sun, the orb of fire, spinning round m dark clouds and radiating its dazzling rays. Apart from these elaborate descriptions, we have a large number of brief but vivid pictures in this Book. At the very outset there is a striking picture of the silence and stillness prevailing around Saturn so that a leaf falling from a tree down to the ground remains where it has fallen, without moving in the least:
No stir of air was there,
Not so much life as on a summer’s day
Robs not one light seed from the feather’d grass,
But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest. (Lines 7-10)
Another vivid picture is that of Saturn and Thea continuing to sit together, silent and still for one whole month, and looking like statues:
One moon, with alteration glow, had shed
Her silver seasons four upon the night,
And still these two were postured motionless,
Like natural sculpture in cathedral cavern;
The frozen God still counchant on the earth,
And the sad Goddess weeping at his feet. (Lines 83-88)
Another notable picture, equally vivid, is that of the various omens which frighten human beings. The ill-omens which Hyperion witnessed were, however, of a different kind. The omens in his case were not those which scare human beings:
Not at dog’s howl, or gloom-bird’s hated screech,
Or the familiar visiting of one
Upon the first toll of his passing-bell,
Or prophesyings of the midnight lamp. (Lines 171-74)
Similes, Extended Ones and Short Ones
There are some very striking similes too in this Book. A few of these similes are of an elaborate and extended kind, which are characteristic of an epic. Here is an example of the extended simile:
As when, upon a tranced summer-night,
Those green-rob’d senators of mighty woods,
Tali oaks, branch-charmed by the earnest stars,
Dream, and so dream all night without a stir,
Save from one gradual solitary gust
Which comes from the silence, and dies off,
As if the ebbing air had but one wave;
So came these words and went. (Lines 72-79)
There are a number of short similes also in this Book. The winged attendants of Hyperion standing in clusters are compared to anxious soldiers who gather on wide plains when an earthquake has shaken their fortresses and towers. The feeling of agony which creeps through Hyperion’s body gradually is compared to a lithe serpent, vast and muscular, moving slowly forward, with head and neck convulsed on account of over-strained might. Hyperion, plunging into the deep night, is compared to a diver plunging into the pearly seas.
Like to a diver in the pearly seas,
Foreward he stoop’d over the airy shore,
And plung’d all noiseless into the deep night. (Lines 355-58)
Each of these similes is a vivid picture as well.
CRITICAL COMMENTS ON BOOK TWO
Several Sections of Book II
While Book I is in the nature of an exposition, Book II develops both the argument and the action of the story, and is important in respect of characterization as well as ideas. This Book is divisible into several sections which may thus be identified:
(1) The opening lines contain a vivid description of the cave where the defeated Titans had taken shelter.
(2) This is followed by a description of the assembled gods themselves. Each of the gods is named and introduced to us briefly with reference to his or her principal feature or characteristic. Almost each of them is individualized.
(3) The arrival of Saturn and Thea at this cave is then described, with particular reference to Saturn’s mood of despondency which deepens as Saturn nears the cave.
(4) Saturn then delivers a speech to the assembled gods, expressing his puzzlement at their mood of hopelessness and despair in the face of their defeat. He seeks the opinion of Oceanus who is regarded by him as a thinker and philosopher and who should therefore be in a position to give some sound advice to Saturn in this common calamity.
(5) Oceanus, in his reply, says that the defeat which the Titans have suffered at the hands of the Olympians was inevitable and follows Nature’s law. He urges the defeated Titans, and especially Saturn, to reconcile themselves to their dethronement and to accept the inevitable.
(6) Then the goddess Clymene speaks. She gives to the Titans an account of her experience in the woods when she had heard a music which she had never heard before, a music which seemed to supersede all the melodies which had ever been heard in the universe before. She had fled from that music but had been chased by a sweet voice which had again and again uttered the name of Apollo, “the morning-bright Apollo”.
(7) Enceladus’s reaction to these two speeches, one by Oceanus and the other by Clymene, is then described. Enceladus is not in favour of submitting to the new powers, represented by Jove, which have now begun to rule the universe. He counsels the Titans to undertake to fight against the new gods in order to regain the realms which they have lost.
(8) Finally, in this Book, we have a description of the arrival of the radiant Hyperion who has come, in obedience to Coelus’s advice, to see with his own eyes the sad condition of his fellow-Titans in the cave and to help them regain their lost realms, if he can.
The Epic Strain
The epic strain of the poem continues in Book II. The gods and goddesses are still the characters with whom we are concerned. These gods and goodesses are now given a concrete and visible life, even though they are in a mood of despondency and are feeling lifeless. Most of the gods present are individualized by means of brief pictures of their visible symbols or characteristics, and some of them are further differentiated from one another by means of the speeches they make. A reference is made also to the gods who are absent either because they have been put into prisons or because they are wandering about aimlessly in the world at large. The description of the various gods and goddesses is awe-inspiring despite the fact that they are in a state of deep despair. It is noteworthy that, although the characters in the poem are supernatural beings, yet their feelings and emotions are similar to those of human beings. Sadness and hopelessness are the two dominant emotions which they all experience. But, besides these emotions, they also experience rage, fear, anxiety, revenge, remorse, and even hope (the hope of regaining their kingdoms). The style of Book II is as exalted as that of Book I.
The Concept of Evolutionary Progress in Oceanus’s Speech
Oceanus’s speech is one of the two most important passages in the entire poem, the other being the passage describing the deification of Apollo in Book III. Oceanus’s speech is the key to one of the dominant themes of the whole poem. Oceanus justifies the defeat of the Titans at the hands of the Olympians on the ground that the Olympians surpass the Titans in the same way as the Titans had surpassed the original chaos and the primeval darkness which the Titans had superseded. Oceanus tells his fellow-Titans that an endurance of all naked truths and the ability to accept the facts calmly represent the top of sovereignty. He wants them to understand that the law of Nature demands the supersession of the beautiful and strong by the more beautiful and the more strong. The eternal law, says Oceanus, is “that first in beauty should be first in might”. He tells Saturn that the latter was not the beginning and is not the end. Some of the more important lines from the speech of Saturn are worth quoting :
We fall by course of Nature’s law, not force
Of thunder, or of Jove. (Lines 181-82)
And first, as thou wast not the first of powers,
So art thou not the last; it cannot be:
Thou art not the beginning nor the end. (Lines 188-90)
O folly! For to bear all naked truths,
And to envisage circumstance, all calm,
That is the top of sovereignty. (Lines 203-5)
So on our heels a fresh perfection treads,
A power more strong in beauty, born of us
And fated to excel us, as we pass
In glory that old darkness. (Lines 21-2-15)
For ‘tis the eternal law
That first in beauty should be first in might:
Yea, by that law, another race may drive
Our conquerors to mourn as we do now. (Lines 228-31)
Oceanus’s speech contains the concept of evolutionary progress. The world can never remain the same. Change is the law of life. Good must give way to better; the strong must give way to the stronger; the beautiful must yield to the more beautiful. That is how the world has reached its present stage of development. If there were no change, there would be stagnation. In the political, social, and cultural worlds, as well as in the world of Nature and in the realms of animal life and plant life, change and development are inevitable and also desirable. Tennyson afterwards expressed this idea in one of his poems when he wrote: “The old order changeth yielding place to new.”
Graphic Descriptions and Vivid Pictures
Keats’s descriptive gift finds a striking illustration in this Book also. First of all, there is the graphic description of the cave where the defeated gods have taken shelter. It was a den where no light could shine on the tears of the Titans. It was a place where the Titans could not hear even their own groans because of “the solid roar of thunderous waterfalls.” It was a place where the rocks, touching each other’s tops, ‘‘made fit roofing to this nest of woe.” Then we have the description of the gods themselves. This description consists of a series of closely linked pictures of the individual gods and goddesses. There was, for instance, Creus whose ponderous iron mace lay by his side and who had shattered a rock with that weapon. There was Iapetus who held in his hand a dead serpent, with its forked tongue squeezed from its throat. Iapetus had strangled the serpent because it had failed to spit poison into the eyes of the victorious Jove. There was Cottus who lay prone, his chin uppermost, as though in pain. Near him was Asia who had cost her mother keener birth-pangs than any of her sons had caused her. Asia was seeing visions of her future glory, and was thinking of the temples which would be built in her honour in the tittles to come. Above all, there was the giant Enceladus, once tame and mild but now furious and wrathful. In his imagination he was hurling mountains in the second war which, he thought, would be fought between the Titans and the new gods. And then, of course, there is the graph c description of the radiant personality of Hyperion who arrives to meet his fellow-gods. Like the previous description of Hyperion in all his splendour and glory, this description too is very impressive. The radiance shed by Hyperion spreads all around him, making every place, every spot, every rock, every corner look bright. Here is part of this description conveying the radiance and splendour of the sun-god:
Till suddenly a splendour, like the morn,
Pervaded all the beetling gloomy steeps,
All the sad spaces of oblivion,
And every gulf, and every chasm old,
And every height, and every sullen depth,
Voiceless, or hoarse with loud tormented streams :
And all the everlasting cataracts,
And all the headlong torrents far and near,
Mantled before in darkness and huge shade,
Now saw the light and made it terrible.
It was Hyperion: (Lines 357-67)
Extended Similes, and Brief Similes
There are a number of notable similes in Book II as there were in Book I. Again we have both kinds of similes, of the extended kind which are typical of epic poetry, and the brief ones. Here is an extended simile, comparing the increased sadness of Saturn to that of a mortal man on approaching a mournful house:
As with us mortal men, the laden heart
Is persecuted more, and fever’d more,
When it is nighing to the mournful house
Where other hearts are sick of the same bruise ;
So Saturn, as he walk’d into the midst,
Felt faint, and would have sunk among the rest, (Lines 101-6)
The psychological truth contained in these lines is also noteworthy. Here is another extended simile:
There is a roaring in the bleak-grown pines
When Winter lifts his voice; there is a noise
Among immortals when a god gives sign,
With hushing finger, how he means to load
His tongue with the full weight of utterless thought,
With thunder, and with music, and with pomp:
Such noise is like the roar of bleak-grown pines;
Which, when it ceases in this mountain’d world,
No other sound succeeds; but ceasing here,
Among these fallen, Saturn’s voice therefrom
Grew up like organ, that begins, anew
Its strain, (Lines 116-27)
These lines, which contain a wonderful Nature-picture are intended to bring out a contrast rather than to establish a comparison, but the extended picture meant to emphasize the contrast is certainly remarkable. At the conclusion of the speech made by Clymene we are told that her voice at the end was drowned by the overwhelming roar of Enceladus just as a timid stream flowing slowly is ultimately lost in the ocean:
So far her voice flow’d on, like timorous brook
That, lingering along a pebbled coast,
Doth fear to meet the sea: but sea it met,
And shudder’d; for the overwhelming voice
Of huge Enceladus swallow’d it in wrath:
The ponderous syllables, like sullen waves
In the half-glutted hollows of reef-rocks,
Came booming thus, (Lines 300-7)
Each of these similes, as already pointed out, contains a vivid Nature-picture. Then there are the brief similes. The imprisoned gods, with their clenched teeth and “all their limbs locked up” are compared to “veins of metal, crampt and screwed”. Enceladus in his tame and mild state is compared to a ‘‘grazing oxunworried in the meads.” The melodies coming from Apollo and falling upon the ears of Clymene are compared to “pearl beads dropping suddenly from their string”. The shining hoary locks of Saturn are rompared to the bubbling foam around a ship when it sweeps into a bay at midnight.
CRITICAL COMMENTS ON BOOK THREE
An Abrupt Deviation from the Main Narrative
Book III is apparently an abrupt deviation from the main narrative which is now kept in abeyance, while Keats proceeds to develop a different theme The theme of Book [II is the process by which Apollo, a human being, is deified and transformed into a god. There is no doubt that, if Keats had continued with the poem and completed it, he would have depicted the conflict which would have inevitably taken place between Apollo and Hyperion, with Apollo gaining a victory over Hyperion and dethroning the only god of the previous generation who had not yet been displaced from his position. In that case Book III would have fallen into its proper place, and the whole poem would have presented a unified structure. As it is. Book HI seems to be a digression. The main narrative stands still, while Keats takes up a different subject altogether.
An Invocation to the Muse
The opening lines of Book III are an invocation to the Muse. Such invocations are permissible in epic poetry. From this invocation it seems that Keats would like to commemorate his brother Tom who had died after a long and lingering illness. Keats calls upon the Muse to leave the Titans to their woes and to turn to a “solitary sorrow”, meaning his own grief over his brother’s death. He asks the Muse to dwell upon a “lonely grief”, namely his own grief. But then he changes his mind and turns his attention to Apollo whom he describes as “the father of all verse”.
Vivid and Sensuous Imgery
The poet’s mood now changes from one of solemnity and sorrow to one of joy; and he is filled with poetic fervour at the thought of Apollo. He calls upon all Nature to put on a fresh glory because he is going to celebrate the greatness of Apollo. Keats would like every rose to glow intensely and to warm the air. He would like all the clouds to float in “voluptuous fleeces” over the hills. He would like all the shells lying on the sand or in the depths of the sea to turn crimson. He would like the maid to “blush keenly” as if she had been surprised by a warm kiss. The sensuous quality of these pictures is noteworthy. He then calls upon the island of Delos to rejoice because the poet is going to deal with Apollo:
Rejoice, O Delos, with thine olives green,
And poplars, and lawn-shading palms, and beech,
In which the Zephyr breathes the loudest song,
And hazels thick, dark-stemm’d beneath the shade:
Apollo is once more the golden theme! (Line 24-28)
The poet then goes on to give us a description of how Apollo issued forth from his bower, leaving his fair mother and his twin-sister asleep, and how, walking ankle-deep through the lilies of the valley, he reached the banks of a stream when the nightangale had just ceased its singing, when only a few stirs were left in the sky, and when the thrush had begun its serene singing. Then comes the following beautiful picture:
Throughout all the isle There was no covert, no retired cave
Unhaunted by the murmurous notice of waves,
Though scarcely heard in many a green recess, (Line 38-41)
The Deification of Apollo
All this was the prelude. We then come to the real theme of Book III. As Apollo stands weeping on the banks of the stream, an awful goddess suddenly appears before him. This encounter between Apollo and the goddess, who is no other than Mnemosyne, is a crucial stage in the development and ripening of Apollo’s genius as a poet-singer. A first Apollo feels perplexed, not knowing who this goddess is. She confirms his vague feeling that he had dreamed of her and says that she had placed a golden lyre by his side when he was asleep She then informs him that it was from that instrument that he had been able to produce the wonderful music which the whole universe had heard with untiring ears. Next, she asks him the reason for his weeping. Apollo now suddenly realizes that this goddess is Mnemosyne, and says that there is nothing that he can tell her because she knows everything about him. Now it is his turn to ask her certain questions. He would like to know why he is so unhappy, and he would like her to enlighten him about the nature of this universe, about the nature of the stars and the moon and about the nature of the divinity which governs this universe. He speaks of his “aching ignorance” which makes him miserable. The goddess, who has given up her allegiance to the old gods for the sake of this budding genius who is going to attain the maturity of his poetic powers, remains mute. But Apollo is now able to read a wondrous lesson” in her silent face. Her face reveals to Apollo the accumulated experience, knowledge, and wisdom of all the past ages. Having come into a possession of all that store of knowledge and experience visible in her face, Apollo feels that he is on the way to become a god. But, first, let us see what he reads in the face of this goddess:
Names, deeds, gray legends, dire events, rebellions,
Majesties, sovran voices, agonies,
Creations and destroyings, all at once
Pour into the wide hollows of my brain,
And deify me, as if some blithe wine
Or bright elixir peerless I had drunk,
And so become immortal,. . . . (Line 114-20)
Apollo’s whole body is now shaken by “wild commotions”. He seems like a man struggling at the gate of death, or like one who is taking leave of pale immortal death and, with a pang, dies into life. Apollo goes through an agonizing experience at the end of which he shrieks with joy and ecstasy. He has now become a god.
The Allegorical Signifiance of Apollo’s Transformation
Now, this passage describing the transformation of Apollo from a mortal human being into an immortal god has to be studied at two levels. Firstly, Apollo will now be in a position to challenge the supremacy of Hyperion, the god of song and poetry, as well as the god of the sun, who still retains his empire while the other old gods have already been dethroned. The strife between a new god, Apollo, and the old god Hyperion, will end in Apollo’s triumph, so that the process of the dethronement of the old generation of gods will be completed. This would, of course, have been the direction which the poem would have taken if Keats had gone on with it in order to complete it. The underlying theme of the poem as a whole would then have been the concept of evolutionary progress of mankind in all fields of human life, as well as of the universe as a whole. That would have been, and still is, the symbolic significance of the poem if approached in an objective manner. But there is another level at which we can study Book III, and that is the subjective level. On the subjective level, Book III is an allegorical account of Keats’s view of his own development as a poet. If Apollo’s insight into the essentials of life makes a god of him, Keats’s sympathetic understanding of the realities of life makes a true poet of him. Keats, the poet, would no longer be satisfied with a world of imagination. He has come into contact with the stark reality of human life. The lingering death of his brother is one of the circumstances which have led to the deepening of his sensibilities. He would now like to write realistic poetry dealing with human sorrow and human suffering, and he would describe the wisdom which comes from human tragedies. Apollo’s encounter with Mnemosyne and his transfiguration are thus an allegorical representation of Keats’s emergence as a true poet, as a poet who would now deal with the truths of life and the reality of human suffering rather than try to escape from this actual world into a world of fancies.
No Lowering of the Emotional Pitch in Book III
Book III is written in the same epic style in which Books I and II had been written. There is no lowering of the emotional pitch. If anything, the pitch rises somewhat because the poet has now involved himself in the story which he had been writing. He has infused his own personality into that of Apollo, thus making his poem doubly interesting. Of course, we cannot go into the question of how Keats would have gone on with the poem in case he had decided to complete it. But this much is certain that the poem, apart from being an allegory of the concept of evolutionary progress, would also have been an allegory of his own mind and soul. In fact, the personal allegory is completed already, while the other allegory remained to be completed.